ATA News

Chocolate makes happiness

Summer Conference delegates hear from Syrian refugee turned chocolatier

Keynote speaker Tareq Hadhad at the ATA Summer Conference

A Syrian refugee’s sweet story of renewal, reinvention and resilience was the main course for the opening keynote at summer conference, with chocolate on the dessert menu.

The 380 teacher volunteers attending the ATA’s 75th annual summer conference in Banff earlier this month were treated to the inspiring story of Peace by Chocolate CEO and founder Tareq Hadhad.

Hadhad told teachers that he wanted them to master the skills of storytelling, while sharing his story of his family’s journey from Damascus, through Lebanon, to becoming one of the largest employers in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

“Being proud of our stories truly changes the world,” said Hadhad.

Hadhad’s story starts with his dad becoming the largest chocolate maker in the Damascus region, then takes a sharp turn when war breaks out in Syria. 

After spending five days hiding out from certain death in his grandmother’s basement, crowded together with 60 of his relatives, his family fled to Lebanon. His father, however, stayed behind until just minutes before their factory was leveled by shelling.

Eventually the family was accepted to Canada, where Hadhad embraced chocolate once again to rebuild their future.

“Chocolate makes happiness,” he says. 

Hadhad told teachers that life is all about perspective and what angle you look at things from. What we call miseries in this country are sometimes dreams for other people around the world. 

Hadhad went on to discuss the value of schools and of public education, noting that education was not accessible to many children in Syria — in particular, quality education was only available to the elite and wealthy.

“No matter what your postal code is, you have access to proper and professional education for your kids,” he said about Canada’s education system.

Hadhad’s story has been documented in the book Peace by Chocolate and the Netflix movie of the same name.

Schilling opens conference

ATA president Jason Schilling also talked about the power of storytelling in his conference-opening speech. He encouraged teachers to share their own stories with family, neighbours, MLAs and community members.

“By telling our stories, we humanize our concerns beyond a headline or a post on social media,” he said.

We need to celebrate our achievements, said Schilling, but we also need to have the courage to have the difficult conversations and engage in those discussions in a meaningful way. He said that the teachers assembled were the very leaders needed to do this. 

“We all have the power to make a difference for public education because everyone in this room values free, quality, accessible, inclusive public education.”

Schilling also provided an update on a number of ongoing and emerging issues facing the profession, pointing to classroom conditions, bargaining, curriculum, teacher recruitment and retention, and teacher wellness as issues that will challenge the profession and the Association in the year ahead.

Schilling reported that he has spoken with the new minister of education already about these issues and that advancements on them will be best served by establishing a better relationship with government.

“I believe that despite our differences, both parties appear genuinely interested in resetting and re-establishing that relationship.”

He also spoke about the need to mend relationships within the profession, pointing to the pandemic and the divisive vote on the last bargaining round’s mediator’s recommendations as points of tension.

“Moving past these tensions starts by genuinely listening to each other, seeking to understand and then collaborating to create solutions.” ❚

The ATA’s 75th summer conference ran from August 14 to 18, 2023, at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Summer Conference is an annual training event for teachers who take on voluntary positions with ATA locals, specialist councils and teacher conventions.


Headshot for ATA Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Teghtmeyer
Jonathan Teghtmeyer

ATA News Editor-in-Chief